Category Archives: Social Issues

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.

Post Election Perspective from the Classroom

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There are days in a teacher’s career where you question your value or whether or not you can continue to do your work. Today was not one of them.

Today reinforced why my work matters. Today reinforced how important my work is.

I teach American Government. Believe me, this work isn’t for the faint-hearted. My goals have always been to create an engaged citizen who values analysis and research and recognizes bias and perspective. In an election cycle, the significance of this work becomes immediately apparently.

So I did my work. We discussed the liberal media, the conservative media, the aggregate polls, the junk polls, PACs, SuperPACs, image and the political process. On Election Night, I was glued to the news and my fingers were attached to my phone, updating my twitter account and asking questions to my students using an advertised hashtag. Finally, the election arrived. For government teachers, the election is the political amalgamation of the Super Bowl and Olympics.

This isn’t my first election as a teacher. In fact, I began my teaching career in the fall of 2000. I vividly remember telling my students on Election Day 2000, “We should know the results late tonight.” Well, we all know how that turned out.

The 2004 election was a bit trickier. We were in a war and Americans were still reeling from the effects of 9/11. The 2008 and 2012 election drew youth to the polls. My students were excited to discuss those elections and the candidates. My students mobilized for these candidates.

This election was different. I know this isn’t news to anyone but as a government teacher, I didn’t find my students incredibly interested. We did begin our discussion a year earlier, tracking the primary candidates on the board. Several of my students attended the caucuses and asked questions. A few even went to local rallies. But when the dust settled after the primaries and convention, students didn’t ask many questions or offer many opinions unless I prompted them. However, when prompted, my students respectfully recognized that they held different opinions from one another. I held a debate viewing party at school and students showed up and engaged in conversation. I knew that my students held diverse perspectives on the candidates so I thought I was prepared for how to discuss the outcome of the election. I realized that I wasn’t.

I threw out my lesson plan as my students rolled into class today. I witnessed pleased students happy with the outcome walk in and sit down next to those who were crestfallen.  Regardless of their division, in front of me, they appeared united.  They wanted to know more and sought first to understand. I began our class with the conclusion of Lincoln’s First inaugural Address. My theme quickly emerged as “the Better Angels of our Nature.” I steered the class into a discussion regarding what we’ve learned about campaigns in the past and how the meshes with what we saw occur. My students shared civil discourse and even as we moved into “What questions do you have for our President-elect” I became acutely aware of how real the outcome felt for them. They asked questions about financial aid funding, free trade agreements, military spending, freedom of worship, and social welfare programs. They sought answers to questions that many adults hadn’t considered. The bell rang and class ended but my work did not. Throughout my day, students came to see me, wanting to know more, wanting to understand, and they sought both dialogue and an ear. I offered both.

As I think back about my day, I realize just how important teaching is. Our job allows us to develop students into adults that can engage in civil discourse. We can role model for our students how to accept diverse opinions without fear of jeopardizing one’s own beliefs. We can exhibit respect, acceptance, tolerance, truth, and compassion. If we can do this, our young adults will learn from us how to act and respond to one another.

Today, my work mattered.

Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Continue reading

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

Continue reading

21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: Continue reading

Questioning “CCR”

About the time my middle son (now 8) graduates from high school, my wife and I will still be a few years shy of paying off our student loan debt. We both have Masters Degrees in our respective fields, and finished our undergraduate studies in 2001.

Absolutely, we did this to ourselves. MATs, MSWs, and undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Sociology aren’t fast-track degrees toward high pay and easy loan payoff. We also added other debt and expenses to ourselves by buying a house and having three kids. Choices, and of course we could have made different ones. We live modestly, are natural homebodies, and weigh every expenditure carefully with a more secure future in mind. In reality, we’re doing better than fine.

I have a lot to be grateful for, but nonetheless have spent a great deal of the last twenty years pretty frustrated with the way things all turned out. Growing up, I heard again and again how hard work and doing well in school would offer some sort of guarantee (the “American Dream,” of course). I went to a small, poor, rural high school that had exactly zero honors or AP offerings; I grew up on a farm and took four years of Ag instead, not a bad thing at all (I was heavily involved in FFA, and probably learned more about teaching from my FFA experience than I did anywhere else). However, instead of applying any of the practical skills I learned in Ag, I went to University, since that was heralded as The Right Thing To Do. Meanwhile, a few of my friends chose not to go that route, instead getting jobs or learning skilled trades. Now in their late thirties many own their own businesses, employ others, and earn a solid living for their families in fields such as construction, cosmetology, and plumbing just to name a few. Along the way they found avenues for continued learning, whether it was taking some classes on business management or learning on the job from mentors and peers.

They worked hard to make their lives a success, of course, but hopefully you see my point: they chose the exact route that is so quickly dismissed by our system today.

Continue reading

Understanding the Frederich case

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Frederich v. California Teachers Association, on appeal from the Ninth Circuit, I knew immediately that teacher’s unions would come under fire by the media and other political pundits who have, so often, found disdain for the role of public sector unions in the workplace.  The Court heard arguments in the case yesterday and we can expect the Court to provide its decision by the end of June, when it ends its annual session.  

 

At stake is the ability for a union to prevent the free rider problem.  The free rider problem occurs when non union members, who do not pay membership fees/dues, receive the same benefits/incentives as union members.  Because teacher’s unions work to improve working conditions for all teachers, not just their members, it is plausible that teachers in Washington would seek to change their status as union members to agency fee payers.  Being an agency fee payer means that the teacher pays a fee to the local union for the union to negotiate the local collective bargaining agreement (CBA) from which the agency fee payer, a non member, also benefits.  If the Court strikes down the right of a union to collect agency fees for the work that the union does for the benefit of all of teachers, not just members, non members are able to “ride for free” on the coattails of union members.  Frederich asserts that all union work is political and that her union advocates for issues/areas that she disagrees with, asserting that the union leverages increased salaries against classroom size (see the article from NPR on January 11, 2016).   Although the state of California has come down on the side of the California Teachers Association, recognizing them as a bargaining agent for the 325,000 certificated employees in the state, the role of public sector unions is now in the balance if the Supreme Court sides with Frederich.

 

I’ve been the co-president of my local association for the past nine years.  I’ve bargained three contracts, soon to bargain my fourth, and I’ve had the pleasure of working to improve the conditions for the teachers in my district.  Over the past three contracts, our teachers have earned access to fifteen days of extra pay for the work that they do outside of contract hours.  Our teachers have seen increased dollars allocated towards skyrocketing health care costs and more money placed into their professional development, so that they may seek further education that benefits their students.  Because of our union’s work, our school district pays all of the fees associated with National Board Certification and has worked with our district to establish an OSPI approved cohort.  We have worked to advocate for smaller classroom sizes, increased stipends, and more paraeducators for our students and our teachers.  All teachers, regardless of whether they are members or agency fee payers benefit.  Most of the work that I do as co-president benefits all teachers, not just our members.  In addition, our union benefits our school community.  We provide three scholarships to graduating high school students, regardless of whether the student’s parent is an affiliated member with the union.  For our members, we provide three scholarships to teachers who want to further their education.  We work to be good stewards of fees, returning them to our members in the form of classroom grants for supplies and materials that go directly in the hands of the students.  If Frederich wins, fewer teachers will likely join the union and since the union cannot collect agency fees, fewer funds will be available to support the work of the union. Teachers who have been outliers to union activity will not have to support the work of the union to negotiate the contract and advocate for student and teacher needs.
I am proud of the union work that I do and of my union here in Washington.  We work hard to advocate for student needs which includes providing them with the best quality education possible.  I shudder to think what the state legislature, which has just recently come back into session, thinks is the best quality education.  Frederich has serious ramifications nationwide but let us not look past the potential consequences in our state.  With our legislature in contempt of the Supreme Court, now is the time for more advocacy at the state level, not less.  Teachers need their union to serve as one united voice to speak for our practice.  Our union advocates for our students by supporting reduced class sizes, reducing testing mandates, and bringing awareness to the social justice issues that our students face.  The Court’s decision will surely impact the work of our local and state union to do the advocacy work that our students and teachers need them to do.